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Servant leadership: The foundation of a solid fire command system

“Take care of your troops and they will take care of you” and other military command lessons applied to the fire service

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Servant leadership begins with a simple concept: “Take care of your troops and they will take care of you.”

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Any of us who has been in the military knows that there is a time-tested phrase, “Take care of your troops and they will take care of you.” And most anyone who has been a commissioned or a non-commissioned officer (NCO) knows that this statement is as true today as it was for centuries of warfare involving the United States.

What does this mean? Essentially, the best officers and NCOs prepare their troops through realistic training, straight-forward evaluations, and an honest after-action assessment of the facts – what went right, what went wrong and how as a team, they could all, including those in command, do better.

Paramilitary matters

The fire service in the United States has been a paramilitary organization at minimum since the mid-19th century.

First, there are very few individuals in the fire service; most of us are part of a company, a battalion or a division that form a department. Volunteer companies may be a part of an automatic- or mutual-aid compact that joins these departments into a similar cohesive group when any large-scale emergency occurs.

Our team approach, whether as an individual company or part of a group of companies, acts exactly the same in coordinated operations as our military does on a battlefield. There are objectives to achieve along the way until the final objective of the coordinated operation is achieved. In our case, that includes the safety of our citizens, the safety of our firefighters, the safe extinguishment of a fire, or the mitigation of any other type of emergency.

Today’s fire officer needs to ensure that their firefighters receive the best possible training and that they are both skilled and knowledgeable so they can correctly perceive and adjust to changing conditions on the fire scene. That higher level of training must be our objective as officers, and a large part inclusive of the idea that we need to “Take care of our troops, so they can take care of us.”

This begins by knowing your crewmembers – their strengths, their weaknesses and the level of training they need to be safe and succeed. If this is beginning to sound a lot like the roles and responsibilities discussed in a fire command system, you are correct.

No military goes to war without a coordinated plan – neither should any fire department. No military goes to war without contingencies (i.e., backup if one our more phase of the plan of operations can’t be readily achieved) – neither should any fire department.

The higher in rank you go, the more responsibility for this advanced planning and coordination falls upon you. It is all the same as in the military. “Taking care of your troops” means knowing they are the best trained and tested firefighters they can be and their knowing that you as an officer are equally or better prepared to lead them and make sound decisions that will achieve the primary objectives in handling the emergency scene and getting them safely home at the end of the incident. A fire command system is essential to do both. Let’s look at the basics of any essential fire command system and how it relates to those used in the military.

Command system parallels

The initial alarm usually tells us the time of day, location and general information on the nature of the fire or emergency (a kitchen fire, auto crash with entrapment, etc.) In most modern-day cases, the military knows what unfriendly troops are on the move, their general location, what weapons they may have at their disposal, and thus the relative size of a defense needed to control and then overcome any aggressor.

But the action begins at first contact, or as we may call it a “situational size-up” – “Charlie Company to Battalion, we have contact with a mechanized infantry company approximately 5 miles north of our base. We are engaging with anti-tank and rifle fire. Charlie Company has operational command.”

Our size-up might go like this: “Engine 9 is on the scene of a medium-size two-story brick-and-frame single-family dwelling with light smoke showing from the Bravo side of the structure. Engine 9 has a water supply and pulling a 1¾-inch fire line on the Alpha side. This is an offensive operation, and Engine 9 has Main Street Command.’”

Engine 9’s OIC then does a 360-degree size-up and reports further: “This is a tri-level dwelling with a walk-out basement, utilities are on the Alpha/Delta corner, and we have a working fire extending out of the kitchen into the hallway adjacent to the bedroom stairs.”

In the military, the initial contact may also entail the further scoping of the size of the enemy forces and reporting the size of the enemy force, something like: “Charlie Company is engaged in what appears to be the larger part of a battalion size group on the move to the west.”

So, we see that there are parallels among these systems that help determine the size and subsequent duties assigned to arriving companies. This is similar to our Engine 9 assigning the next engine to secure a second water supply and move their personnel up to help advance their initial fire attack line, while assigning the arriving ladder to search and rescue of the structure.

Engine 9 remains the Main Street Command until relieved by a more senior officer such as a battalion or division chief. That officer first requests an update while confirming the present positions of the three companies engaged in their active fire suppression roles. Then, only after clarifying or confirming the situation as well as the location of these companies, does the senior or chief officer formally announce they are now assuming Main Street Command.

That command officer should know the capabilities and limitations of the companies on scene and those that will subsequently arrive, as they will be assigned tasks in support of the current tactics in place, including their automatic- or mutual-aid units. For example, one of the staged engines may be short-staffed and subsequently may be given a task such as utilities control rather than the rapid-intervention team due to the size and complexity of the task assigned.

So, it is with the military, as additional units arrive in support of Charlie Company’s initial engagement, that the senior military officer needs to update themselves on the current situation and determine what actions and resources will be needed further engage and ultimately stop or destroy the enemy battalion on the move.

Incident commanders: “Keep your head”

In both cases, what will be needed is an organized, planned and practiced operational system with built-in checks and balances so that the location, condition and progress on the fire and those firefighters engaged in these activities can be continually maintained. This includes a 360-degree view of the incident, and in the event of the fire being in a multi-story building, including a basement or lower floors, a six-sided view that includes both above and below the fire when possible. While observing in these spaces is usually too hazardous, we are honing a whole new use for robotics to aid in this process.

The systems used by the military and by us in the fire service must also include what happens and how we react when the unthinkable occurs. In our case, it may be a missing firefighter, a catastrophic structural collapse, and unforeseen explosion, etc. Knowing what, how and who (resources needed) must always be top of mind for the incident commander. As some military officers have stated, “Command is the person who keeps their head when all others may be asking for it on a platter.”

The parallels between the military and the fire service are many. Servant leadership begins with a simple concept: “Take care of your troops and they will take care of you.” This is a time-honored belief – one that for the fire service starts with a dedicated, planned and practiced fire command system.

Follow the SROVT principles – solid, realistic, ongoing, verifiable training – to develop strong incident commanders

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.